Category Archives: Pop Culture

A History of Santa Claus

This piece is basically a transcription of a lecture I’ve frequently delivered to my social studies classes on the day before winter break since about 2002.

I got hooked on Santa lore when I saw an A&E Biography on St. Nicholas in 1994. I wrote a paper on him in college a few years later, and saved all my notes. As a teacher, I spun it into a class presentation to have something fun to do on the last day before winter break when no one wants to do any real work. (I can justify it in the educational world of academic standards by calling it a lesson on “cultural diffusion.”)

Nowadays, there’s not much here that can’t be found on the Santa Claus or St. Nicholas Wikipedia pages, but in the absence of anything else to post this time of year with a suitable holiday feel, I thought I would send this artifact from my bottom drawer into the ether of internet posterity.

How did this…

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Become this?

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Here’s what I would say to the students:

“It’s not too much of a stretch to figure out that the term ‘holiday’ comes from ‘holy day.’ Days set aside for the veneration of religious figures have been a facet of human existence as far back as the historical record can peer (and presumably into the mists of prehistory). When the human species gradually abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle around ten thousand years ago, an existence based on animal husbandry and cultivation of planted crops allowed for some downtime in the cold season between harvest and planting. The crops had been gathered and stored in granaries, and the animals earmarked for slaughter were salted away or consumed before they spoiled, frequently in observance of one of these holy days. Be it celebrating primitive pagan nature gods or the Christian saints of a later era, any excuse to retire the yoke and hoe for a day (or twelve) of feasting was enthusiastically seized.

Winter and summer solstices were considered very important, the winter solstice particularly so. When you lived and died based on what you could wrest from the soil, noting that the days were gradually getting longer and warmer again was cause for rejoicing.

The Romans had a calendar with months we would (mostly) recognize since the earliest days of the old Roman Republic (500s BCE). Their winter solstice (‘bruma’) date was December 25.

Saturnalia was a pre-solstice, multi-day Roman festival that traditionally ran from December 17 to December 23. It was definitely a carnival atmosphere, similar to Mardis Gras in modern-day New Orleans, but the characteristic that’s noteworthy for our purposes was the tradition of gift-giving.

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Saturnalia

Many Romans of the later period of the Empire (300s CE) worshipped a sun god called Sol Invictus (‘Invincible Sun’). A Roman codex made by an engraver named Filocalus in 354, and copied and re-copied many times over the next few centuries (the original was lost), is the source of a lot of our knowledge about Roman institutions of the third and fourth centuries. Essentially a kind of almanac/encyclopedia, it included a calendar of important dates. The day celebrating this particular sun-god, ‘Dies Natalis Solis Invictus,’ is listed as December 25.

Also on December 25, Filocalus noted the ‘birth of Christ in Bethlehem, Judea,’ the first surviving reference to this event happening on that date. Certainly no such date ever appeared in the New Testament, but there are many biblical passages linking Jesus to the sun (‘the light of the world’ according to John, etc.), and there was also symbolic importance attached to his conception being connected to the vernal equinox (beginning of spring.) So the date caught on relatively quickly, being mentioned in a sermon by St. Augustine as soon as the early 400s. It was regularly celebrated on that date as the feast of ‘Christ’s Mass’ by the 800s. Modern and ancient theologians both agree that December 25 is almost certainly not the birthdate of the historical Jesus, but acknowledged that metaphoric symbolism superseded a completely blank historical record. The gospels were not intended to be historical documents, but historians have gleaned what they could from context, passing references, and geographical details buried in what were explicitly created as religious dogma.

As Christianity gained more of a foothold in western Europe, missionaries and other early supporters of the new religion eased various local population’s transition away from paganism by gradually replacing pagan festival days with days venerating Christian figures. They kept the same dates, and a lot of the same traditions. As long as the celebration was held in the name of the newly-ascendant monotheistic religion, everyone seemed happy. The feast of Christ’s Mass incorporated many elements of the dissolute Roman Saturnalia, and grew increasingly raucous until its reputation had become disreputable among the devout by the early modern era.

Other western cultures had their solstice festivals as well. The pre-Christian Germanic lands of northern Europe had ‘Yule,’ and its associated massive log, which was expected to burn in the village square for all twelve days of the festival, and still have enough consumable fuel to provide the starting kindling for next year’s Yule log. The Celts liked to decorate for their solstice festival with pine, holly, and mistletoe.

As Christianity spread out of the Mediterranean area in the first part of the Middle Ages, the Christ’s Mass festivities began incorporating local traditions, such as Yule. A medieval Christmas was twelve days of revelry (partridge in a pear tree optional), beginning on December 25 and ending on ‘Twelfth Night,’ January 5.

The day after Twelfth Night was another important date on the old Christian calendar, celebrating the Epiphany — the arrival of the magi (‘three wise men’) in Bethlehem and the revelation that God was made incarnate in the newborn Jesus. Other sources indicate the Epiphany is in observance of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist many years later. Either way, a heads-up to all of you lazy slackers who leave their Christmas lights up until March — it is considered bad luck to leave Christmas decorations up past Twelfth Night.

The rise of Christianity coincided with the decline of the western Roman Empire. While the religion crawled its way north and west in dribs and drabs, Emperor Constantine shifted the base of operations for the newly-Christian Imperial government eastward, to Byzantine (soon to be renamed Constantinople) on the edge of Asia Minor. So Asia Minor (now Turkey) was really the home base of Christianity for a couple of centuries, where it eventually evolved into its own unique flavor — Eastern Orthodox. The eastern portion of the old Roman Empire became known to historians as the Byzantine Empire, and took on many Hellenistic (Greek) cultural traits.

St. Nicholas originates here.

Lycia, in ancient times an independent kingdom, and in the 300s a largely self-governing province in the eastern Roman empire, was tucked away along the southwest coast of Asia Minor. The terrain was rugged and its inhabitants were mostly Greek-speaking. Its principal port town was Myra, although the once-bustling harbor has long since silted up, and Myra itself is now nothing more than archaeological ruins.

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Detail of rectangle in the above map

Keep in mind that there is no historical evidence that the person that became known as St. Nicholas ever existed. The Catholic Church demoted him on their ‘calendar of saints’ in 1969 due to this lack of historical verification. (Along with 93 others, whose origins were ‘more mystery than manuscripts,’ according to a Church spokesperson, although they retained full sainthood.) All information about — and images of — St. Nicholas came from sources working centuries after his supposed death. So he could be as imaginary as his later incarnation, Santa Claus.

With that in mind, let’s tell his story.

Nicholas was born in Patara, another Lycian city a few miles west of Myra, in March of 270, and would have answered to the Greek form of his name, Nikolaos. His parents were wealthy Greek Christians who died when Nicholas was still in his teens. He gave away his inherited fortune to the needy, and soon became an ordained priest in Myra, where his reputation for generosity began to grow. (Some sources say he was never ordained, but was a ‘lay brother,’ or monk, in his early years.) According the legend, one of his first acts as a man of the cloth was to surreptitiously, in the darkness of three successive nights, slip bags of gold through the window of a family who could not provide proper dowries for their three daughters and were about to sell them into prostitution. He was caught by the father on the third night, and Nicholas swore him to secrecy, wanting the good deed to remain totally anonymous.

The father evidently did not keep his promise, as soon Nicholas became a kind of Byzantine Superman. Stories shared among the Lycians had him rescuing drowning sailors, reanimating dead children who had been pickled in brine, freeing unjustly accused prisoners, calming hurricanes, teleporting himself, flying, and so on.

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Young Nicholas, depicted as he may have looked when he became a bishop, c. 300

Around 300, Nicholas was elevated to the post of Bishop of Myra. Later visual depictions of him often had him clad in red and white bishop’s robes, a color scheme that would remain associated with him. It was around this time that Diocletian (r. 284-305), the last Roman Emperor who made a policy of persecuting Christians, had Nicholas imprisoned and tortured, some said for as long as a decade. Diocletian’s successor, Constantine, not only ended the persecutions (and freed Nicholas), he converted the Empire to Christianity.

By 325, early Christianity was already splintering into factions. Constantine called together the First Council of Nicaea to iron out the differences and get everyone on the same page. Over 1,800 bishops attended, Nicholas supposedly among them. Things got heated. Nicholas was the center of attention at one point when he belted the leader of the Arianism sect right in the chops. (The Arianists believed Christ himself was not a part of God as stated by the Trinitarians, but a separate and distinct “Son of God.” Nicholas was a staunch Trinitarian, evidently.)

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Nicholas died on December 6, 343, and was likely entombed in a fourth century church on the nearby island of Gemile, the ruins of which can still be seen. The church in Myra that was the seat of his bishopric was torn down or crumbled away. Anything he wrote, if he wrote anything at all, was lost. The only things that remained, for 200 years, were the fantastical stories. Nicholas was a righter of wrongs, a defender of religious orthodoxy, and a special protector of children and sailors.

Some of these stories finally got jotted down in the late 500s, and provide the first written mention of Nicholas (apart from his name scrawled on the ruined wall of the church on the aforementioned island of Gemile). He remained an immensely popular figure, especially among sailors working the Mediterranean coast, who enjoyed spreading the Nicholas tales as far as Italy. His church in Myra was rebuilt. Locals gave gifts to each other in his name. Michael the Archimandrite finally produced the first full-length manuscript to survive into the modern era, The Life and Wondrous Works of our Father Nikolaos, Bishop of Myra, in Lycia in the late 800s. Then came Simeon Metaphrastes’ The Life of St. Nicholas about a hundred years later. Both were based on oral traditions and earlier written sources now lost, and are the basis for pretty much everything we know about the figure of St. Nicholas.

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St. Nicholas as imagined by the Renaissance. Detail from the 1490 Florentine painting The Visitation with Saint Nicholas and Saint Anthony Abbot by Piero Di Cosimo

There is no fixed date for when he officially became a saint. The standardizing of the canonization procedure was not fixed until the 1100s, and Nicholas had been referred to as a saint for at least 300 years before that. His feast day was observed on the traditionally accepted date of his death, December 6.

As the Arabs made more and more incursions along the southern Turkish coast, Nicholas’s remains were moved to his re-built church in Myra, where they were treated as a shrine with healing properties for the next 400 years. By 1087, the Muslim Turks were overrunning Asia Minor, so concerned sailors (Nicholas’ biggest fanboys) spirited the bones of the saint across the sea to a safer place — Bari, on the heel of Italy’s boot. There they remain to this day, in the Basilica de San Nicola, built especially to accommodate Nicholas’s relics. Continue reading

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The Last of the Antenna TV Generation

TVIt can be mildly frustrating being on the dividing line between generations. I am on the younger end of “Generation X,” and a few years too old to be a “Millennial.” I’m that between-the-cracks age that is young enough to spend a lot of money on games from Steam, but old enough to remember Betamax tapes. Can’t remember John Belushi as an SNL cast member, but can remember Julia Louis-Dreyfus as an SNL cast member. Young enough to have grown up mostly with cable TV and the plethora of options it offers, but old enough to (barely) remember when the family TV in its polished wooden cabinet was still wired to an antenna on the roof, and the smaller TV in the den had rabbit ears. Too young to remember TV sitcoms of the 1960s and early 70s during their original run, but old enough to have seen them when they were still widely syndicated on local channels through the beginning of the 1990s.

So I have a comfortable familiarity with The Beverly Hillbillies, I Dream of Jeannie, My Three Sons, The Addams Family, The Brady Bunch, and so many more, even though I wasn’t around to watch them on a network in prime time when they first aired. People approximately my age are probably the last of those who do know these shows, unless they were “outdoors” in the late afternoons, engaging in “organized sports” or some other pointless shit instead of sprawled in front of the TV where the good stuff was. (Mid-mornings were also a primo time for these shows, perfect for summer vacations and sick days.)

Knowledge of these shows drops off precipitously for people even just a few years younger than me. The mid-1990s would be right when those slightly younger folks graduated from cartoons and kids’ programming to regular TV, and is also right when syndicators began dumping re-runs of long-gone shows in favor of re-runs of shows still being made, which seemed wrong somehow. Not to mention the fact that hot garbage like Home Improvement and Family Matters can’t hold a candle to timeless works of art like Gilligan’s Island and Mr. Ed. Basic cable’s “Nick At Nite” programming kept the flame alive for awhile, but even they began to prefer Fresh Prince of Bel Air to Welcome Back, Kotter by the early 2000s.

(Another influx of truly old-school entertainment came when I slept over at my grandparents, which happened at least one weekend a month from 1977 to 1985. They had only one TV in their house, so I watched what Grandma and Grandpa watched…and they were born in 1909. So it was a parade of Bob Hope specials, The Love Boat with its gallery of washed-up mid-century celebrities, The Lawrence Welk Show, Hee Haw, and the last of gasps the network variety shows, which were almost extinct by the early 1980s. Even at age seven, I remember thinking Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters was kind of a horrid trainwreck. Luckily, the grandparents were tucked into their Bert-and-Ernie twin beds at 9:00, so I was free to watch the Duke boys tear ass through Hazzard County, then turn the TV off as Dallas started, and watching the picture shrink to a tiny glowing dot in the middle of the screen that lingered for several minutes.)

The mildly frustrating part comes in when I’m dealing with someone even just a little bit younger (I’m on the cusp, remember?), and realize our frames of reference don’t match up, and then feel incredibly old. (“Remember when Pat Sajak had that famously bad late night talk show? ‘No?’! What do you mean, ‘Who’s Pat Sajak?’! He’s still on TV, for chrissakes! Oh, you only watch streaming shows…”)

A one-sided version of this scenario came up most recently for me when I started listening to the podcast Seincast, which, as you would expect, is a discussion and analysis of individual episodes of Seinfeld (a show I fully supported going into early syndication, because I got to watch even more of it.) The podcast hosts, Vinny and Matt, are for the most part enjoyable and certainly know their Seinfeld…as long as it’s confined to the Seinfeld universe. They are grown men with respectable day jobs (Vinny is actually a pharmacist.) But every so imageoften, I (internally) cry out is dismay as the hosts reveal their status as ignorant pups bumbling across my audio lawn by completely misunderstanding — or missing entirely — an older cultural reference that Seinfeld will make from time to time. I can almost hear the whizzing sound as the name or phrase sails over their heads. How can a someone as grown-up as a pharmacist not recognize a reference to A Streetcar Named Desire? And they seem to not realize Elaine and Jerry’s frequent inside-joke refrain of “all-right-sir” is quoting Tom Snyder. They have admitted to never having seen a second of The Dick Van Dyke Show. They had never heard the old expresson “nothing to sneeze at,” and assumed it was a creation of the show’s writers. This sort of thing will happen at least once per episode, and it makes me start every podcast with the thought, “I wonder what these kids aren’t going to get this time?”

I’m sure poor Vinny and Matt are inundated on the Seincast Facebook and Twitter accounts with corrections or clarifications from crotchety older listeners. But they rarely acknowledge it on the next episode. I admire their “keep moving forward” philosophy, but c’mon, give the old folks some closure. Even stoner comic Doug Benson has a “Corrections Departmentduring the next episode whenever he or a guest flubs a film fact on the Doug Loves Movies podcast.

For those in the know, a lot of those old TV shows can still be found if you look hard enough. Deep down the cable channel list, between Laotian soap operas and equestrian coverage, you’ll find Antenna TV and MeTV, both of which feature the type of stuff I was raised on. I hadn’t seen Hogan’s Heroes in decades. I’d forgotten how adorably zany Nazis could be. 

I first discovered Antenna TV when I heard they were showing old Tonight Show episodes from the Johnny Carson’s Burbank era (1972-1992). As a kid during summer vacations, I would stay up to watch Carson and Late Night with David Letterman. During the school year when I went to bed earlier, I set the timer on the VCR and watched them on tape after school the next day. Carson was a big part of my formative years, and I was excited he would be on regularly once more, from beyond the grave. So I set my TiVo accordingly, and it’s hardened into a daily habit again. I get home from work, handle whatever minor domestic chores need to be done, put on my loungewear, climb into my massage recliner with a cold drink, and the well-known (to some of us) brassy intro to Paul Anka’s Tonight Show theme is blaring out of my TV’s sound bar by 5:30 or a little after.

250px-Tonightshowtitlecard1980sThere is no rhyme or reason to the order that Antenna TV airs the episodes. A Tonight Show from 1991 can be followed the next night by one from 1973. If it’s from 1986 or after, I might actually remember watching it when it originally ran. Antenna TV puts the date of the original broadcast on the opening credits, but I try to avoid looking at it, and attempt to guess the year from the contents of the monologue, which is always topical. The challenge is that current events names almost never stay current. On one episode, Johnny made about six references to a “Tamara Rand.” I gave in and looked her up. Turns out she was a psychic who claimed to have predicted the assassination attempt on Reagan, was exposed as a fraud, and never heard from again after a few weeks in early 1981. But, boy, was she the comedic highlight of that single episode of The Tonight Show. I’m sure they have a reason, but Antenna TV does not air episodes from Johnny’s first ten years (1962-1972) when the show was based in New York, which is a shame because I think that would be pretty fascinating.

The guest panel is often a parade of the semi-recently deceased. I look down the couch, thinking “dead…dead…ooh, still alive…dead…” And I can do that because the guests actually stuck around after their segment, they just moved down to make room for the next guest. If they had to leave early, it was remarked upon as out of the ordinary, and they were ceremoniously ushered off. Conan O’Brien tried to keep this tradition alive until relatively recently, but it hasn’t stuck. No celebrity wants to sit outside of the spotlight and just listen politely. Or, more likely, no celebrity’s publicist wants them to do that.

Then as now, guests were on the show to plug a movie or TV show, and I like to use Wikipedia as a time machine to see the fate of that project in a weird form of internet schadenfreude. “Hmmm…looks like Dead Heat didn’t work out for you, Joe Piscopo. In fact, nothing ever will again. Suzanne Pleschette, you seem really excited about that new TV series. Oh, cancelled after seven episodes? Sorry, dear.” Sometimes I don’t need Wikipedia. “Hey, O.J., guess what you’re going to do in about ten years?”

Even though Johnny Carson supposedly pefected the late night talk show format (based on a template sketched out by Steve Allen — current events monologue followed by a comedy bit at the desk, celebrity guests, maybe an interesting or odd civilian guest, closing with a stand-up comedian or musical guest), what strikes me is how late in Johnny’s run that format hardened into tradition, and how much late night talk shows have changed even from that point. Modern late night shows are first and foremost comedy shows, are very high-energy, and move at a pretty fast clip. Unless it’s a mega-star like George Clooney, a guest gets one segment between commercials. And if the guest or host doesn’t get a laugh every thirty seconds (at least), the show feels dead.

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Johnny’s version of the show, at least until its last few seasons, was a genuine talk show, or “chat show” as the Brits accurately call it. Guests just…talked. They weren’t coached by the writing staff, or spoon-fed laugh lines. They would ramble through a lengthy anecdote with minimal payoff. It was often so quiet you could hear an occasional cough from a studio audience member. The post-monlogue desk bit flopped as often as it scored. (You can sometimes see Johnny completely lose interest partway through as the audience sits in what sounds to modern ears like very awkward silence.) Believe it or not, it was actually kind of great — real and relaxed. It was assumed most viewers were winding down and preparing to go to sleep, and none of the content was designed to be viewed in frenetic three-minute clips on the internet the next day. Smoke from Johnny’s under-the-desk cigarette would often drift lazily into the picture as the camera focused on McLean Stevenson talking about his socks for eight minutes. (If it was a 70s episode, both Johnny and the guests would openly puff away. An ashtray was always on the table in front of the guest couch.) Carson bent over backward to make his guest funny or interesting if they weren’t pulling it off for themselves. Amy Irving was a fairly frequent guest. She was (and is) a brilliant actress, and I’m sure she’s a gracious human being, but it was like interviewing a dead carp — you can see Johnny working. (Charles Nelson Reilly, on the other hand, I’ll sometimes rewind and watch twice.) Continue reading

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The Holy Bee’s 36 Hours of Christmas (Part 2)

It’s A Wonderful Life

This Frank Capra film was pretty much ignored when it came out in 1946, but it became a holiday staple when it went out of copyright in 1974, and dozens of local TV stations across the country ran it and re-ran it until everyone was thoroughly sick of it. NBC got its claws on it a few years back, and curtailed its infinite loop, usually showing it only twice during the holiday season.

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There are three types of people: 1) those who love the film despite being beat over the head with it on television for over thirty years, 2) those who despise it for its sappy sentimentality (and the incessant figurative head-beatings), and 3) those who have successfully avoided it for their entire lives. I fell into the latter category for most of my existence, and was content to remain there, until I was essentially forced to watch it by my wife’s family, who are all type one. As everyone was dissolving into big puddles of tears at the end, I found myself almost joining them. But through sheer grit, fortitude, and more than a little biting the inside of my cheeks, I succeeded in remaining stoic and dry-eyed. Take that, Capra. (SLEEP OPPORTUNITY: If you’re a type two and nothing will ever change that, go ahead and grab forty winks.)

So, yes, the movie is pretty good. Just as Miracle On 34th Street is surprising in how much of a sharp comedy it is, It’s A Wonderful Life often shocks first-time viewers by how grim it is, until the redemption in the last reel. (A Christmas Carol Trivia: Lionel Barrymore, who plays mean old Mr. Potter here, played Ebenezer Scrooge every year on an annual live radio broadcast of A Christmas Carol from the 1930s to the early 50s. He was supposed to play Scrooge in the 1938 film version, but had to drop out for health reasons, and was replaced by Reginald Owen. Some say Barrymore would have been the definitive film Scrooge had he made the movie.)

In order to convince NBC to share It’s A Wonderful Life this year, the Holy Bee had to agree to a little deal.

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RETURNING IN 2017 — WEDNESDAYS @ 8:00, ONLY ON NBC!!

Moving on…

Bad Santa

Up next is the polar (no pun intended) (not a pun, anyway) opposite of the Capra tearjerker, 2003’s Bad Santa — one of the crassest, foulest, and most lovable Christmas comedies in cinema history. The titular “bad Santa” is suicidal, late-stage alcoholic Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), who uses his yearly employment as a department store Santa to rob said department stores blind.

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When you peel back the surface crudity and wall-to-wall profanity, you find a film that actually has a lot of heart. The clever script, which received uncredited assistance from the Coen Brothers, who also produced, is never truly mean-spirited. (When Willie shreds a child’s advent calendar and eats all of the chocolates in a drunken blackout, he at least tries to make amends by replacing the chocolates with NyQuil gelcaps and candy corn — “they can’t all be winners” — and taping it back up.) The direction by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World) is visually deft and quick-paced. There are also great supporting performances by two comic geniuses no longer with us: John Ritter as the timid department store manager, and Bernie Mac as the head of store security.

Sadly, Bad Santa 2, made this year by different writers and a different director, fails because it’s nothing but surface crudity, missing the poignancy and, yes, subtlety of the original. (SLEEP OPPORTUNITY: If the sight of Santa, red fuzzy Santa pants around his ankles, having loud back-door sex with a heavyset woman in a department store changing room, is just too much for you, grab your sleep now.)

Frosty The Snowman

Rankin/Bass is known mostly for its stop-motion animation, but it did produce the occasional traditional cel animation special from time to time. 1969’s Frosty the Snowman expands on the lyrics of the song (popularized by Gene Autry in 1950) by adding an evil magician, a rabbit named Hocus Pocus, and a race-against-time plot to get Frosty up to the North Pole so he won’t melt. The Big Man himself, Santa Claus, makes a cameo appearance to get the evil magician to change his ways — and write formal apology letters to everyone he had wronged! What it lacks in depth (even The Year Without A Santa Claus had a little bit of layering going on), it makes up for in brevity (it sails across the finish line in about 25 minutes), along with the voices of long-forgotten comedian Jackie Vernon as Frosty, and Jimmy Durante as the narrator — and singer of the theme song, which he performs in his unique style.

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Red Skelton’s Christmas Dinner

Like Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, this is an old childhood favorite from 1981 that was shown on HBO for many years. Wholesome family entertainer Red Skelton, like Andy Williams, had politics slightly to the right of Barry Goldwater, but boy was he gifted in the art of pantomime and character creation. He also had a slightly creepy obsession with clowns. He did over 1000 clown paintings though the years. (When asked why, he said “I have a reason…but I don’t want to talk about it.” Creepy, right?)

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It wasn’t actually in black-and-white, but was so old-fashioned it might as well have been

Luckily for everyone, the clown he played in person wasn’t creepy at all, but utterly charming. “Freddy the Freeloader” was a typical “hobo” style clown, with minimal make-up, a battered hat, and the stump of an unlit cigar in the corner of his mouth. He has scraped together enough funds to treat himself and his pal, “The Professor,” to a nice Christmas dinner, but gets sidetracked by various distractions along the way, including returning a lost dog to its owner, and asking a Christmas tree vendor what he can get for twenty-five cents. (“A pine cone on the end of a plumber’s helper” is the response.) Out of everything here, this may rank the highest on the Syrupy Sweetness Scale (at one point he entertains a literal hospital full of sick children), but if your fillings can take it, it’s worth it to see Skelton in all his mawkish glory, ably supported by Vincent Price as the Professor, and Imogene Coca as a rather absent-minded lady hobo.

Home Alone

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Whatever, kid

I only included this one because the KHBE office would be flooded with mail if I didn’t. Personally, I don’t care for it. The sadistic cartoon slapstick of the “Wet Bandits” is lame, and Macaulay Culkin’s performance is the worst kind of artificial child-acting — alternately hammy and robotic. There appears to be very little going on behind his slightly out-of-focus eyes. Enjoy, if this is what does it for you. (This space could just as easily be filled by The Santa Clause, which I also don’t care for, mostly because if it involves Tim Allen, and isn’t a Toy Story, it will give me painful hives.)

A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All

The old-fashioned Bing Crosby-style Christmas special, by turns staid and silly, has always been ripe for parody. As the A.V. Club website points out, “this type of TV programming is kept alive in the public imagination largely by those making fun of it.” But nobody did it better than Stephen Colbert in 2008. Still using his self-aggrandizing, blowhard “Stephen Colbert” persona from The Colbert Report, he gambols about in a cardigan sweater on an absurdly bright “mountain cabin” set, answering the door for “surprise” guests (including Toby Keith, and a bear), and eschewing traditional Christmas songs in favor of “Little Dealer Boy” (a duet with Willie Nelson) and “Can I Interest You In Hanukkah?” (a duet with Jon Stewart.)

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Continue reading

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The Holy Bee’s 36 Hours of Christmas (Part 1)

At the end of last year’s “24 Hours of Halloween” — a marathon of spooky movies and TV shows curated by me for my imaginary TV station (“KHBE”) — I remarked jokingly that “48 Hours of Christmas” would follow. The joke turned quite serious when I realized I was short a Christmas entry this year. So the project is on!

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The first thing that struck me was that actually watching a 48 hour marathon would stretch the limits of human endurance, unless a very different kind of Christmas “snow” was involved. Thirty-six hours is just about do-able, and I’ll be offering suggestions as to when to catch some shut-eye. Also, have some food on hand. In fact, go ahead and have some turkey. That whole thing about tryptophan making you sleepy is just as big a bullshit myth as sugar causing hyperactivity (so quit making excuses for your poorly-behaved children.)

Part of what made the original “24 Hours of Halloween” marathon work was that my notional cable station would run the programs commercial-free, and start everything promptly on the 0s and 5s. Any one-to-four-minute downtime between shows would be filled by quips and double-entendres from everyone’s favorite horror hostess, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Since no equivalent pop-culture icon could fill her dress in a Christmas capacity, I decided to go ahead and pack those tiny spaces with commercials — but only vintage, holiday-themed commercials from the late 70s to the early 90s.

You want Hershey’s Kisses ringing like bells? You got it. (This one still pops up on real TV from time to time.)

You want Ronald McDonald ice-skating? You got it.

You want Joe College, in that horrid cable-knit sweater, home for winter break and waking up the whole damn house by brewing a pot of Folger’s? You got it.

And more Budweiser clydesdales than you can shake a peppermint stick at.

If there’s any other awkwardly-timed space to be filled, KHBE will just show footage of a Yule log for a few moments, maybe with some tasteful snippets of Mannheim Steamroller in the background.

(You’ll notice there’s not a lot of Disney stuff here, and that’s because Disney never really “did” Christmas very much, or all that well. I think they see Christmas as a competing brand of magical happiness. Maybe I’ll throw in that Chip ‘n’ Dale short where they hide from Donald Duck in the Christmas tree in the place of a few vintage commercials.)

The “36 Hours of Christmas” marathon will run from noon on December 22nd to midnight on the 23rd, so you can get a good night’s sleep and be up (bright-eyed and bushy-tailed) on Christmas Eve morning, and are able to stop being a lazy shut-in, and handle all of your family obligations. For those bound and determined to continue being a lazy shut-in, and/or those whose families are annoying fundamentalists or obnoxious Trump voters who can’t stop making quasi-racist remarks over the figgy pudding, the marathon will re-run in its entirety through the 24th and 25th. You’re welcome.

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These marathons don’t just organize themselves

OK, the clock is striking twelve, you’ve cashed in some vacation hours from work, you’ve dumped a splash of peppermint schnapps into your hot cocoa (yes it’s noon, but no one will judge you), and you find KHBE down in the 800s of deep cable…what do we start with?

Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town

What better way to kick things off than with a bunch of creepy, plastic talking dolls? Over the past five decades, the Rankin/Bass production company has become practically synonymous with “kids’ TV Christmas specials,” and their stop-motion “Animagic” aesthetic (a song every few minutes, polyester snow, jerky, spastic movements and lifelessly staring eyes for the characters) is as beloved by some as a favorite ugly sweater.

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Another reason we start the marathon here, besides the general ubiquitousness of Rankin/Bass at yuletide, is that it’s an origin story. 1970’s Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town, based on the 1934 song by the wonderfully-named songwriting team of Coots & Gillespie, explains how an orphan child, who was left on a doorstop with the nametag “Claus” around his neck, was taken in and raised by a family of toy-making elves (the Kringles), and grew up to be the familiar figure of Santa. He had to work his way up to delivering on a global scale. He started by bringing happiness to the gloomy children of Sombertown, although his methods may raise an eyebrow or two. During the song “If You Sit On My Lap Today (Be Prepared To Pay),” a beardless young Kris Kringle (voiced by well-known degenerate letch Mickey Rooney) demands a kiss from every child before he will give them their present. No wonder Burgermeister Meisterburger wanted to kick his ass out of town and back over the Mountain of Whispering Winds. Continue reading

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Confessions Of A Hardcore Gamer*

*Not really.

But the engrossing, soul-consuming world of computer gaming is the reason I’mvault-boy taking forever to finish the multi-part series of blog entries I foolishly promised last month. In order to finish that series, there’s lots of stuff I have to read first, and who has time for reading boring old books when I can be crafting mods for my .308 combat rifle with the calibrated receiver, recoil compensated stock and reflex sight (nicknamed “Thunder”) or my laser rifle with the maximized capacitor, full stock, and beam focuser (“Lightning”)?

Or I can be magnanimously providing clean water options for tiny, post-apocalyptic survivor communities, or accepting assassination contracts on chem dealers preying on the inner cities, or protecting the settlers at Oberland Station from an onslaught of green-skinned Super Mutants and nefarious Raiders.

I should add that I also have a .50 sniper rifle with a night scope, a souped-up .10 mm pistol (“Cobra”), a .44 revolver that fires two projectiles with a single trigger pull (“Double-Down”), and a short-barreled, close-range shotgun that adds 10% plasma pulse damage with every hit (“Barker”). I can also build picket fences, practice taxidermy on horribly mutated wildlife, and select tasteful artwork for settlement walls, among a thousand other options.

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Yes, I am three weeks in to Fallout 4 (level 40 as of this writing), and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of the incredibly intense, rich world the good folks over at Bethesda Softworks have concocted to gobble up every second of my free time. My formerly rewarding career is now merely the 8 hours a day in between Fallout 4 sessions. Family? One son is leaving soon for college, and the other is a sophomore in high school who spends most of his time in his room with the door firmly closed. My beautiful wife has her own obsessions (she is a chronic Candy Crusher and binge-watcher of various Netflix shows), so she doesn’t begrudge me mine. Books go unread on the end table (including the ones needed to complete the blog series). My TiVo has been on the fritz for almost two months, recording nothing, and I’ve barely noticed.

Funny thing is, I have had far less experience with video games than most people of my generation. For large chunks of my life, I’ve had no interest in video games whatsoever. But it’s been a long, multi-decade dance of seduction. Video games and I would flirt, move closer for awhile, then split apart for months or years, until I was drawn in again, and the process would repeat itself.

Pitfall!_CoverartUs Gen Xers were at the forefront of home gaming systems, not counting the archaic, late-70s Pong. (Pong was what Mom & Dad and older sister idly played in the downtime between our Kraft mac & cheese dinner and the latest episode of Alice.)

Like many others my age, I navigated Pitfall Harry over crocodile-infested ponds, and guided a weird, square-ish Pac Man around his maze, devouring dots with a loud “bonk”ing sound completely unlike the arcade version. This was 1983, or the “Summer of the Atari 2600.”

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I even had the infamous E.T. game, which we picked up for a dollar at a garage sale. Its reputation is well-deserved.

After the appeal of maneuvering indistinct blobs of pixels randomly around my TV wore off, video games and I parted ways for a long time.

Pac-Man_Atari_2600_GameplayThe original, iconic Nintendo Entertainment System hit store shelves when I was about eleven or twelve, and I suppose I could have had one if I wanted one, but I couldn’t care less. I thought of myself as above it all. I was reading Tolkein and Asimov and Vonnegut. I was an intellectual. Literally every single one of my friends had it, though, and I was often cajoled into joining them in a rousing round of Duck Hunt, silently seething every time that idiot dog giggled at me for missing both ducks. My eye-hand coordination was never (and still isn’t) anything to write home about, which is why I took no interest in sports, either. I just consoled myself with John Irving novels and the knowledge that I was superior.

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Except I wasn’t. I soon discovered some deeply-buried pleasure center in my brain stem was tickled by Tetris, which I played at a girlfriend’s house until falling blocks and 8-bit versions of Russian classical music played in my head as I was trying to fall asleep hours later.

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At a later girlfriend’s house (I was a senior in high school by this time), I discovered her younger sister (a sophomore) had an NES in her room. Big deal, right? You bet it was a big deal — I discovered this obscure little title called Super Mario Brothers, and it was all I wanted to do. I spent a wildly inappropriate amount of time in my girlfriend’s sister’s Super_Mario_Bros._(NA)bedroom.

The girlfriend was understandably concerned, and asked me a number of pointed, suspicious questions. But the fact that I only had eyes for bricks, mushrooms, turtles, and Italian plumbers emanated from every fiber of my being. She correctly concluded the situation was harmless, and the obsession would pass.

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Flash forward a year or so. The same girlfriend was now working a full-time job. I was bopping around community college and working part-time at a video store — that also rented video games. This was the early 1990s — the grand era of Super Nintendo vs. Sega Genesis. The girlfriend still lived with her parents and had nothing to spend her relatively massive paycheck on, so she bought me one of the new Super Nintendo systems, which we used to play one game and one game only — Super Mario Kart. (“Press ‘B’ To Start.”)

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This is where my lack of true video game interest rears its head again. I had free and total access to my store’s massive stock of rental games. I touched almost none of them. I did not care for any of the sports games. No NHL ‘94 or Madden NFL for me. I thought the super popular “fighting” games were especially ludicrous — the various Mortal Kombats and Street Fighters could all be thrown in the river as far as I was concerned. The early quest-based fantasy RPG games like Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past were just too visually primitive to hold my interest. I was anti-Sega for very good reasons that I have long since forgotten, so Sonic the Hedgehog remained a stranger. Continue reading

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I’m Using “1989” In A Blog, Where Do I Send The Check? (Part 2)

track-500x339“I Wish You Would” (this particular song has pretty much nothing to do with what follows, but it’s the only track off 1989 that I couldn’t stretch to fit my narrative.)

As should be clear by now, I was a movie fan, which meant I would check out whatever was new that week at the multiplex, with no real discernment. If one movie was sold out, I just went to the next one down the list. (I became a pickier, snobbier “cinephile” a few years later after having my world rocked by Reservoir Dogs.)

1989 was the first year of many years in which I picked up a copy of Leonard49f88b938e217bb593378795367434f414f4141-1 Maltin’s TV Movies & Video Guide. This tome was the size of a small brick, and was “the essential reference for home video rental, featuring…18,000 films!” It was the Internet before the Internet.

So I had been marking life milestones by what movie I had seen most recently. (The start of summer vacation was not only Tienanmen Sqaure, but also Weekend At Bernie’s.) One of the many changes wrought by 1989 was that my personal events began being marked more and more by music. The big summer albums, as I recall, were the B-52s’ Cosmic Thing and the Tom Petty solo album Full Moon Fever. The strains of “Love Shack” and “Free Fallin’” saturated the hot, dry Northern California air. One celebratory, one regretful and elegiac. It was kind of the sound of the 80s dying, though no one thought of them that way then.

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For a little bit longer, though, movies were still my markers, and the last movie I saw before high school was The Abyss. It was the night before Locker Day. Locker Day was the first big event before school actually started, and, as the name suggests, it’s when you get your locker assignment in the high school hallways. It’s also when you get your list of classes. Nick made the trek up from Robbins to see the movie, sleep over, and get his locker with me the next morning. But something had irrevocably changed.

He was on the high school football team.

220px-TheAbyssHe was still the amiable, slightly goofy guy prone to malapropisms (he once said “douche” instead of “tush” when someone drew a girl’s backside in a family game of Pictionary — my mom laughs about that to this day.) But practices had already started, and he no sooner set foot in my new Yuba City place than he had to dash off and put on the pads and helmet for the whole afternoon. He barely made it back in time to get changed for the movie. I have to admit, I felt a little jilted.

It got worse. After we got our lockers the next morning, we met up with his new friends — the football team — to walk to Carl’s Jr. for breakfast. Carl’s Jr. wasn’t exactly adjacent to the high school, and over the course of the kind-of long walk, I felt more and more out of place and uncomfortable. By the walk back, I was trailing behind by half-a-block. No one noticed, as they playfully shoved each other and made rude-jock jokes. Nick had found his tribe, almost immediately, and never looked back. As George Gobel once said, “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo, and you were a pair of brown shoes?”

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I have my 1989-90 yearbook and a scanner, so you get a genuine look at Locker Day

“Blank Space”

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Freshman class pic, Sept. ’89. The amount of hairspray seen here may be solely responsible for the hole in the ozone layer

I didn’t dwell on it, though. I was far too excited about the prospect of starting high school. A clean slate, a chance to reinvent myself. I may not have been on the football team, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t peddle my own brand of awesomeness. I never lacked for self-confidence (at least, not yet), but I really was just a puppy tripping over his own paws. I received my class list and locator card that Locker Day, and saw that I had English C, Intro to Physical Science (IPS), Geography C, P.E., Computer Literacy, and Integrated Math. I was in the college-prep C-level humanities classes, but math was my Achilles heel, and “Integrated Math” just meant “pre-algebra.” To my horror, I discovered that “Computer Literacy” was basically a keyboarding class. It didn’t take. I’m typing this right now with two fingers and a thumb. And damn fast, too.

In English class one of our first assignments was an autobiographical essay about a meaningful event in our lives. I wrote about the trip I took to Washington D.C. the previous year. I had always been interested in writing, but I mostly wrote fiction. This wasn’t the first autobiographical essay I had written for a class, but it was the first one I tried to make entertaining and resonant, to inject with some of the passion I used for my made-up stories. “This is really good…” the teacher scrawled at the bottom when the paper was returned. The Holy Bee of Ephesus may just have been hatched at that moment.

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Our brand new sign. We really won the mascot jackpot.

I desperately wanted to begin my dating life. After all, here was a guy who already made out with a girl (albeit in a clinical, pre-arranged ritual that could be qualified as “bizarre” — see previous entry — but it counts!) My entire notion of dating consisted of asking someone to the movies. Or possibly bowling. I couldn’t wait to get started. How hard could it be? The second or third day of school I spotted a likely prospect in my Geography C class.

She was incredibly cute. (I didn’t yet grasp the fact that “boxing above your weight class” could be metaphorical and applied outside the sport of boxing.) She was quirky and unconventional. She carried around a clarinet. She wore loud green-and-purple checkered pants that looked like something out of the Joker’s closet. She sometimes wore a beret. The pop-culture term had not yet been coined, but she looked like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

On some pretense, I began a conversation with her. Then I clumsily popped the clutch and lurched into asking her to the movies. I don’t remember her exact response, I just know we did not go to the movies, then or ever. And she did not conceal her disdain in prognosticating, in no uncertain terms, that the possibility of any interaction with her at any point in the future was a highly unlikely proposition. I felt like a dog swatted on the nose with a newspaper. Not really hurt, just chagrined and embarrassed. Manic Pixie Dream Girls aren’t supposed to be mean.

I vowed to do better with the next girl that came along. Maybe lay a little groundwork before proffering the date within five minutes of speaking to her for the first time. I already had a few in my sights, including one I would I would doggedly and ineptly pursue, Wile E. Coyote-style, off and on for the next two years. (Check out This Used To Be My Playground Part 4: Kryptonite and Stomach-Aches for a flash-forward into the early 90s to see how that adventure turned out. She may just as well have painted a tunnel on the side of a cliff.)

YC emblemOpportunities abounded, or at least I thought they did. Sometime in early September, one girl threw a night-time birthday party with a blanket invitation to the entire freshman class. It was at a park — a park one block away from my house! I eagerly trotted over as dusk settled in. It wasn’t exactly the entire freshman class, but it was quite a crowd. And I knew none of them. The ones I recognized from my classes were already talking to other people. I wandered around aimlessly, had a cup of punch, and went back home, wondering what I thought was supposed to happen, and how come it was so easy for everyone else? I realized it had a lot to do with middle school. Most of the freshman class already had pre-existing relationships with people they went to middle school with (a situation that will come up again later.) That made me feel better. I decided at the next high school social event, I needed a wingman that I knew from middle school, a Goose to my Maverick, a Wedge to my Luke. Nick was already skyrocketing to the top of the social strata and had no time to help out. That left my other Robbins friend, Dusty.

The first dance of the year was coming up – the “Beanie Ball,” hosted by the sophomores to welcome incoming freshmen. I convinced Dusty to make the trip up to Yuba City and go in with me, Butch & Sundance-style, guns blazing.

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A typical YCHS Dance, 1989. I don’t know if this was the Beanie Ball or not, but it certainly could’ve been.

The one potential stumbling block to my cunning plan was that neither one of us could dance. Or at least we couldn’t “fast dance,” so our all-out assault consisted of standing stock-still, drinking cup after cup of Pepsi, and going to the bathroom every fifteen minutes. We watched as our classmates did the Cabbage Patch and the Roger Rabbit all around us while “Bust A Move” by Young MC or “She Drives Me Crazy” by Fine Young Cannibals boomed from the speakers.

What we were doing was working up the nerve to ask a girl we sort of knew to let us put our arms clumsily around them and sway-and-rotate to a slow number. That was a dance move we could handle. But finding a partner was nerve-wracking. “Right Here Waiting” by Richard Marx came and went. “Lost In Your Eyes” by Debbie Gibson came and went.

Then something like “Chances” by Roxette would pop up and no one would know if it was supposed to be fast dance or slow dance song. We were running out time. Finally I spotted a pair of girls I recognized from a class, and had briefly exchanged a few words with. They were even guardedly friendly, unlike mean ol’ Joker-pants. Good enough. Dusty and I locked our s-foils into attack position and moved in.

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This is the real deal, according to the yearbook caption. The Beanie Ball. Dusty & I were in that mass of swaying, sweaty humanity somewhere.

Yelling to make ourselves heard over the likes of “Rhythm Nation” and “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” we made inane conversation with Brenda and Nikki for just long enough to get to the crucial awkward pause — where we had to ask them to dance, or move on, defeated. I turned off my targeting computer, used the Force, and pulled the trigger…successfully. We got our slow dance. It was “Eternal Flame” by The Bangles.

I spent the weekend swooning over Brenda. (Not her real name, BTW. I used her real name once in a blog a couple of years ago, never in a million years thinking she would ever actually read it, but somehow she did and let me know that the real-life, grown-up woman she became was more than a little embarrassed by the whole deal. Fair enough.) She was on the tall side, with shoulder-length dark hair and dark eyes. She admitted she wanted to be a model, and she just maybe could have pulled it off.

Hurricane Hugo hit a few days after the Beanie Ball, doing to the Carolina coast what Brenda was doing to my psyche.

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I literally cannot remember ever having any further interaction with poor Dusty at any time after that. He had served his purpose.

With thoughts of Brenda spinning in my head, I made another attempt to climb the high school social ladder, with predictable results… Continue reading

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I’m Using “1989” In A Blog, Where Do I Send The Check? (Part 1)

Taylor Swift is described in every article ever written about her as a “savvy businesswoman,” but that’s like calling the Grand Canyon a “big ol’ ditch.” She is at this point a walking, talking corporation. When the Supreme Court first established the concept of “corporate personhood,” it seemed more of a conceptual, legal thing. But no. America, we have seen a corporation take literal human form, and its name is Taylor Swift.

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“Human” might be stretching it. Via the dark web, I have proof that she was actually created in an underground lab in 2005 from an unholy primordial soup of rose petals, Diet Coke, and harvested cheekbones by the Universal Music Group in order to shore up their country music division. In a shocking turn of events, she pried off her restraining bolt and went rogue. She incorporated herself (much like The Terminator’s Skynet becoming “self-aware”), and became a multi-genre, multi-media assassin android, destroying rivals and haters with T-1000 intensity and protecting her “brand” with animal ferocity. She now morphs and evolves into something more plastic and ruthless by the month. It is a wonder to behold.

Taylor_Swift_-_1989Her brand protection includes trademarking some key lyrics from her massive 2014 album 1989. A typically cunning move, but it’s been blown up into a minor brouhaha recently because a few Twitter idiots (Twitiots?) wondered how a person could copyright a year.

Well, you can’t, of course, and that’s not what she did.

However, it got me thinking. If a person could own a year, I think I would pick 1989, too.

1989 is allegedly the year Swift was born (but we know the truth, don’t we?), and it was also the year I was born — or at least the year I developed into the person whose words you’re yawning through now. Admittedly, the blessed event when my actual physical body entered the world was a decade-and-a-half earlier, but it was 1989’s experiences that made me the adult I am today (if I can be called an adult as I sit here in Star Wars boxers thinking up android metaphors to describe Taylor Swift.) It was also an altogether eventful, remarkable year even outside my little bubble world. I would like a tiny slice of ownership of 1989.

“Clean”

Like most new years, 1989 kicked off with a feeling of fresh starts. It was theThe Beatles Help - Longbox 405846 beginning of my CD collection. I had just received a CD player for Christmas, so I started by buying all the Beatles albums, one a week, for thirteen straight weeks. Exactly fifteen dollars a pop (my entire weekly allowance), they still came in wasteful foot-long, shrink-wrapped cardboard long boxes, solely because stores hadn’t yet converted the deep bins that used to hold their vinyl LPs.

The first significant event I can remember from 1989 was the inauguration of George H.W. Bush as the 41st President of the United States on January 20…and I couldn’t be happier. Yes, at the age of fourteen, I was a hardcore Republican. Like most fourteen-year-olds, I liked winners, and after eight years of growing up middle-class in good ol’ Reagan’s America, the Democrats had the stink of weak, stagnant losers. I was a budding history buff, so the Republicans to me were the party of Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. I was a military buff, so their strong-on-defense stance and airstrike-happy mentality (take that, Gaddafi!) was enormously appealing. Who could possibly choose that blobby nebbish Dukakis over the steely-eyed WWII pilot “Read My Lips” Bush?

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“Shake It Off”

So, how long did it take for the Republicans to lose this potential voter? Not much longer. A little college and a lot of real world observation shook off the final foul traces of political conservatism from me. And the Republicans did most of it to themselves. Some time between 1989 and Clinton’s second term, the GOP cheerfully opted to voluntarily devolve from “conservative” to a howling pack of pea-brained ghouls. If their platform all along was a raging hard-on for personally-owned assault weapons and a totally misapplied obsession with the Bible, coupled with a slobbering hatred of gays and a deep-seated need to oppress women and anyone half-a-shade darker than Wayne Newton, well,  that would have turned away even 14-year-old me.

Where’s all the Bob Doles these days? When a sentient clown shoe like Dan Quayle would be a breath of fresh air compared to 2016’s slate of GOP candidates, you know the party’s hit rock-bottom.  I try not to get too political here, but the 2016 election, so far, in particular has shown that latter-day Republicans have generally not developed far past the mental age of fourteen.

Anyway, back to me being fourteen…January 20 was a Friday, and I remember watching Bush’s inaugural address on a TV wheeled into my 8th grade classroom.

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The homestead for the 1st half of ’89

At an age when most other kids were deep into real middle school — “junior high” — learning to hustle from class to class, slamming locker doors and trying to beat the tardy bell, I was still in what was essentially an elementary school. Robbins School, K through 8th grade, was at the time the smallest school in the Yuba City Unified School district. Located about thirty miles south of Yuba City itself, it served the tiny town of Robbins (pop. 250 in ‘89) and its tractor-intensive rural surroundings. I was one of nine eighth-graders. All seventh and eighth grade classes were taught in the same room, usually by the same person (Mr. Perkins, who was also the principal, assisted by a rogue’s gallery of student teachers wondering who they pissed off to end up there). We didn’t even live in Robbins proper, but in more isolated surroundings — a rented farmhouse about four miles out of town, where the tranquility was frequently broken by miscellaneous motorized equipment rumbling through our gravel carport to service the thirteen acres of walnut trees surrounding us, and the deafening dive-bombing of radial-engine crop dusters seeding and fertilizing the open fields on either side of the property. (They were not precision vehicles — seeds rained down on our house like hail with each pass, and one summer our corrugated porch roof sported a healthy little crop of sunflowers.)

“Style”

SCN_0036That winter I was fond of wearing a heavy nylon bomber jacket with a fake fur collar. Not long after the accompanying photo was taken, I began decorating it with vintage USAAF pins I’d acquired at a flea market, including pilot’s wings and captain’s bars on the shoulders. The cool kids — consisting solely of Nick and Abel — tightly pegged their stonewashed 501s at the ankle, whereas my hopelessly uncool cuffs flopped around my shoe tops. (By the time I started pegging my pants the next year, the trend was over and I was hopelessly uncool in the opposite direction.)

I had only started at Robbins Elementary at the beginning of 7th grade, and I was lucky that Nick, the alpha-dog kid who had ruled the place since kindergarten, decided I was OK and served as my best friend for a couple of years. The pictures here were taken at Robbins School for reasons unknown (I think I was trying to make some kind of photo-journalistic scrapbook), but I remember it was Valentine’s Day, 1989. Continue reading

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